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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Basic rules about when police can search people or property

Residents of Washington possess a legal right to a reasonable level of privacy, which applies to searches by law enforcement. In situations where no expectation of privacy exists, police may conduct searches without a warrant. For example, a stolen weapon in plain view on the hood of a car could be taken by police. This action would not be considered a search.

To enter private areas, police generally need to obtain a search warrant. Law enforcement could obtain a warrant by explaining to a judge that a search will very likely produce evidence of a crime, which is known as probable cause.

Many exemptions, however, allow police to skip the warrant process. Consent from a suspect grants police the legal right to search a property as long as law enforcement personnel use no coercion or trickery to acquire permission. They also have no need for a warrant when they have reasonable fears about their safety or public safety. A police officer who believes that someone is about to destroy evidence can also engage in an immediate search without a warrant. An example of this would be a robber trying to burn stolen money. Police can step in to stop that act and retrieve evidence. Placing a person under arrest automatically allows police to search the person. The majority of searches occur without a warrant.

When authorities make criminal charges against a person, an attorney could investigate options for preparing a criminal defense. An examination of the circumstances that led to searches could yield reasons to question the legitimacy of such actions. An attorney might succeed in forcing the removal of evidence gained through violations of Constitutional rights.

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